One of the stickiest questions any writer is likely to face is: What’s the difference between a reactive protagonist and a passive protagonist?
If you’ve been studying story structure with me, then you know I talk a lot about how your protagonist needs to be reactive in the first half of the book. But this idea causes a lot of writers to scratch their heads.
Because isn’t it true that you’re also told (like, all the time) that your protagonist should never be passive?
Isn’t reactive kinda like passive?
And, if so, doesn’t that mean that this passive/reactive protagonist is likely to sink the first half of your book, good story structure or no good story structure?
Good questions, all. So let’s examine the differences between the reactive protagonist (yay!) and the passive protagonist (boo!).
What Is a Reactive Protagonist–and Why Does Your Story Need One?
The first half of your story is all about your protagonist being off-balance. The First Plot Point at the end of the First Act forces him out of his Normal World and into the adventure world of the Second Act. From there, he’s going to spend the next quarter of the story–right up until the Midpoint—reacting to everything that has just happened to him. What does this mean?
The Reactive Protagonist Is…
I like to visualize the First Plot Point as something that comes along and physically smacks the protagonist. It literally knocks him off-balance. Some First Plot Points might fling him completely off his feet; others might only make him trip. But he’s shaken up. He’s scrambling to not just regain his feet, but to figure out what just hit him. He’s reacting. He’s not the one who did the hitting; he’s the one who got hit. And now he has to compensate in some way.
Not in Control of the Conflict
This is probably the most important thing to understand about the reactive protagonist. His reactivity is almost solely the result of the fact that he is not the one who is controlling the conflict. The antagonistic force is firmly in control at this point. Stuff is happening to the protagonist, and he can’t stop it. He can’t even properly combat it, because his balance is compromised. To add to our visual image, it’s like he’s being pelted with rocks while he’s still trying to get back to his feet after that mighty whump at the First Plot Point.
Not in Possession of a Complete Understanding of the Conflict and the Antagonistic Force
This one is also crucial. Not only is the protagonist not in control of the conflict, but he doesn’t even fully comprehend the conflict. He may not understand what’s happening to him at all or even how it might be possible (such as Wikus’s transformation in Neill Blomkamp’s District 9). At the least, he doesn’t understand why the antagonist is getting in his way or what the antagonist’s motives may be. And he most definitely doesn’t yet understand enough about the conflict to know what the antagonist’s next move might be.
Not in Possession of a Complete Understanding of Himself and His Own Motives
Particularly if your protagonist is following a change arc, he’s also going to be struggling to understand a lot of his own motives at this point in the story. He’s in the grip of the Lie–and his blindness about himself, just as much as is any other factor, is causing him to get smacked around during this part of the story.
The Reactive Protagonist Isn’t…
You saw this one coming. Just because a protagonist is reacting doesn’t mean he’s passive. More on this in a sec.
This is key. Your protagonist may be reacting–he may not be in control of the conflict–he may not fully understand what’s going on. But he still wants something. He has a goal and he’s moving toward it, or at least protecting his ability to move toward it later. In Steve Miner’s Forever Young, protagonist Danny McCormick is in a totally reactive position when he wakes up after being frozen for fifty years, but he always has the very clear goal of finding his friend and figuring out what happened to him.
We sometimes equate passivity with stupidity. We see this dopey character who’s been knocked off his feet and is now being pelted with rocks–and he’s just sitting there, taking it. Well, if that’s what your character is doing, then he is passive and he is pretty stupid. But a reactive character is doing something: he’s trying to regain his feet, he’s trying to shield himself from the rocks. And even if he’s not being too successful at it yet, that’s most definitely not stupid.
Passivity is also often equated with defeat–and rightfully so. That dopey character who’s just sitting there taking a beating would only be doing that if he’s already given up. But your character is reacting, he’s not passive, and he’s definitely not defeated.
What Is a Passive Protagonist–and Why Doesn’t Your Story Need One
Just by exploring what a good reactive character is and isn’t, we already have a pretty decent idea of what a passive character must be. In Story, Robert McKee writes:
…the truly passive protagonist is a regrettably common mistake. A story cannot be told about a protagonist who doesn’t want anything, who cannot make decisions, whose actions effect no change at any level.
The passive protagonist is one who either has no goal–or is making no effort to achieve his goal. If your character spends most of his time staring out the window or observing as other people do things, that’s a good sign he’s lapsed into passivity. Always ask yourself:
- What does my protagonist want in the overall story?
- What does he want in this scene?
- What he is doing to try to achieve it?
If the answer to any of these is nothing, then you know he’s not reactive, he’s passive. Say goodbye to passive protagonists and let them start reacting instead!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you ever worry your protagonist is passive? What steps have to taken to avoid this?
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